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Square Enix's plan to save Star Ocean

Shuichi Kobayashi may not strike you as the most obvious choice for leading the future of the Star Ocean franchise. Though he's been involved with the series (and others developed by Tri-Ace) for a while now, Kobayashi has never worked as a producer during his time at Square Enix. He worked in marketing.

But he was also one of the only people at Square Enix who wanted to make sure the long-running franchise didn't die entirely.

"Star Ocean 4 marked a tentative end to the series," Kobayashi tells us. "Therefore, the producer who had been involved with all four games left the franchise. I still wanted to make a sequel, so I contacted Square Enix and asked what they thought. They were very positive; they really wanted to do it."

Though Kobayashi had stuck to marketing during his time at Square Enix, he had worked as a producer prior to coming to the publisher. Star Ocean, a franchise he was passionate about, represented the perfect opportunity to return to that role.

Thus, Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness was born.

Integrity and Faithlessness follows a main character who has grown up on an undeveloped planet. The quiet life on this planet is thrown into chaos when a more developed, space-faring people make contact.

"This is the first game since the original Star Ocean where the protagonist is from an undeveloped planet," Kobayashi says. "In the three middle games, the story unfolds around characters from more civilized planets who visit or end up in a less civilized society."

Kobayashi says this return to form is important, because it's also a return to the series' most important theme: "the first encounter and contact between two different societies of planets."

In a lot of ways, Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness seems to be walking a precarious balance between elements that are classic to the series and trying new things. A lot of the direction for the game is being determined by the previous release, 2009's Star Ocean: The Last Hope, which received mixed reactions even from the series' most devoted fans.

"Lots of fans were not very comfortable with Star Ocean: The Last Hope, possibly because some of the team that made it were external to Tri-Ace, and some were new staff," Kobayashi says. "For the previous Star Ocean games, it was the real, core Tri-Ace team. That could impact it. This time around, we're taking the formation of the team back to how it was earlier. The storyline, the mechanics and everything will be returning to how they were when we started."

On the staffing side, Kobayashi offers some examples. Yoshiharu Gotanda wrote the scenarios for the first three Star Ocean games, but for The Last Hope he only provided an outline for the main plot that someone else at Tri-Ace expanded on. He'll be returning to his main writing role for Integrity and Faithlessness.

Not everything will be going back to how it used to be, though. Kobayashi describes one major element that they want to do differently this time around.

"One of the lessons we took from Star Ocean: The Last Hope is wanting to create a game that is seamless," he says. "When you play some RPGs, what happens is that there are so many cutscenes. You play a little bit, and then your play comes to a hold, and you watch a cutscene for a few minutes before playing a little bit again. Lots of fans find this distracting and find it difficult to immerse themselves into the world because of how many cutscenes there are."

Rather than cutting down on the amount of story in the game — a change that would surely disappoint many fans — Tri-Ace is attempting a new type of storytelling. Characters will interact and plot will progress as you're exploring the world, without the need to stop and shift into a traditional cutscene.

This attempt at "seamlessness" affects combat in Integrity and Faithlessness as well. When players run into enemies while exploring, the game will switch into combat mode immediately, in that same area, without loading or switching to a different screen. This will have a major impact on Star Ocean's traditionally large pool of allies as well.

"You get lots of different characters," says Kobayashi. "What normally happens is that you meet new characters and they join your party, but when you get in battle, you have to choose who joins in the battle. But that doesn't work if it's seamless. So what we'll do in Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness is that all the party members you have for the time being will be out and engaged in battle. That poses a lot of challenges for us. We have to deal with lots of visually impressive abilities executed simultaneously. But because of that, you get to enjoy new tactics and new strategies and a new feel for battle while the basic nature of the game is the same."

Integrity and Faithlessness will be full of examples of classic mechanics that have been tweaked to fit into this new approach toward seamlessness. Kobayashi says the item creation system will be returning, as will an evolved version of "private actions," a system that allows the different party members to interact and affects how the story progresses. The game will also feature multiple endings, a classic staple of the series.

All of this effort is not just to help resurrect the Star Ocean franchise but, Kobayashi hopes, the Japanese role-playing game genre as a whole.

"For me, personally, what's really important to me is the fact there are a lot fewer Japanese RPGs around these days compared to a few years ago," he says. "We just need to see exactly what's been requested by fans of that genre. I want to make sure it's given to them."

Kobayashi is already dreaming big about Star Ocean's future — which, he says, could include a shift to open-world gameplay — but first he needs to prove that people can still care about the series with Integrity and Faithlessness. We'll find out how successful he is when the new game is released on PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 in 2016.

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